Over the weekend, it came to light that following a three-year secret diplomat effort, the Taliban agreed to release captured U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in a major prisoner swap involving five detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The swap came largely as a surprise. Bergdahl’s fate seemed to have become one of the perennial uncertainties of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Upon the announcement of the prisoner swap, the Taliban’s reclusive leader Mullah Omar made a rare statement hailing the swap as a “big victory” for the Taliban.
Bergdahl was captured by the Haqqani network in Afghanistan in June 2009 — the Haqqani network is closely aligned with the Taliban. Upon his release on May 31, Bergdahl was retrieved by U.S. Special Operations forces. The politics of the deal involved a great deal of secrecy and cooperation between the governments of the United States, Afghanistan, and Qatar (which served as an intermediary). Bergdahl’s release was one of the factors that led the United States to acquiesce to the opening of a Taliban political office in Doha, Qatar, which served as a base for the Taliban government-in-exile. While the Doha Process fell apart in 2012, back-channel negotiations continued with the government of Qatar conveying U.S. responses to the Taliban.
The Obama administration has faced some criticism for its willingness to negotiate a prisoner release for Bergdahl’s life. In particular, some Republican legislators claimed that the deal effectively puts a price on the heads of American soldiers now that the Taliban has seen that the United States is willing to release detainees. The Obama administration’s defense of the deal focuses largely on principles. “We needed to get him out of there, essentially to save his life,” Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel noted. Hagel additionally cited health concerns as one of the factors that motivated Obama administration officials to pursue his release as a matter of urgency.
The five men released from Guantanamo Bay all held senior positions within Afghanistan’s previous Taliban government. The U.S. government released Khairullah Khairkhwa, Abdul Haq Wasiq, Mohammed Fazl, Noorullah Noori, and Mohammed Nabi Omari in exchange for Sgt. Bergdahl. Khairkhwa was previously the minister of the interior in the Taliban government and, according to the Pentagon, the group’s main liaison to former al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. According to a Wall Street Journal report based partly on U.S. Department of Defense documents made public by WikiLeaks, “Khairkhwa was a friend of Afghan President Hamid Karzai” and “tried to negotiate his surrender and secure a position in the post-Taliban government.”
Wasiq was the deputy minister of intelligence in the Taliban government. He was allegedly instrumental in helping the Taliban form partnerships with other Islamic fundamentalist groups in the region. Fazl was the deputy minister of defense in the Taliban government and is accused of perpetrating anti-Shia violence by the United Nations. Noori was a senior Taliban military commander and commanded Taliban forces against the United States during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. Finally, Omari is thought to have been involved “in a joint al Qaeda-Taliban cell in Khost” although he denies being a member of the Taliban.
“I would like to congratulate from the core of my heart the whole Afghan nation, the devoted Mujahideen and the kith and kin of the prisoners on the auspicious occasion of this great achievement of the release of five distinguished Mujahideen heads from the ‘Guantanamo Jail’,” said Mullah Omar in a statement posted to the website of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the Taliban’s name for its government in exile).
In order to reduce the chance of the released detainees returning to the Taliban’s operational hierarchy, the United States sought a bilateral memorandum of understanding with Qatar. The document was signed in secret and involved the Emir of Qatar directly, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Emir reportedly personally assured U.S. President Barack Obama that the five released detainees would be under close Qatari supervision upon their arrival in the country.